Income inequality is rising, but maybe not as fast as you think

Americans' perceptions of income inequality are largely over-inflated when compared with actual census data, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"With the genuine rise in over the past several decades, and the popular media's intensive coverage of this issue, we wondered how income inequality is perceived by the average American," says psychological scientist John Chambers of St. Louis University.

Chambers, along with Lawton Swan and Martin Heesacker of the University of Florida, wanted to resolve conflicting findings in previous research about whether people are able to accurately assess income and income inequality.

Over 500 participants responded to the researchers' online survey, answering questions about their political leanings, their estimates of annual incomes for different racial groups in America, and their perceptions about overall income inequality in the United States.

Participants tended to overestimate the number of American households that are just scraping by, believing that, on average, about 48% of households make less than $35,000 a year. Census data show that only 37% actually fall under that number. By contrast, participants underestimated the number of American households that are faring well. They believed that, on average, only about 23% of households make $75,000 or greater a year, when census data show that 32% actually make more than that number.

In addition, participants believed the income inequality gap was much larger than it actually is, estimating that the richest 20% makes about 31 times more than the poorest 20%. While the income gap has grown in the past 40 years, the reality is that the top 20% makes about 15.5 times more than the bottom 20% – half the size of the gap estimated by participants.

The researchers discovered that this income gap overestimation was due primarily to inflated perceptions regarding the richest 20%. In 2010, census data show that the richest 20% had average incomes of about $169,000, yet participants believed it was closer to $2,000,000.

Interestingly, these trends were exaggerated among self-identified liberals, who tended to overestimate the size and the growth rate of the income inequality gap, to a greater extent than their conservative counterparts.

"People's attitudes towards public policy are shaped by their perceptions of current economic conditions," Chambers explains. "The perceptions, and misperceptions, we documented may have important implications for public policy debates, such as support or opposition to wealth redistribution policies, minimum wage standards, and social welfare programs."

And the researchers were particularly surprised how pervasive these effects were:

"Almost all of our study participants – regardless of their socio-economic status, political orientation, racial ethnicity, education level, age, and gender – grossly underestimated Americans' average household incomes and overestimated the level of income inequality," Chambers says. "Despite their very diverse backgrounds and personal circumstances, most of our study participants perceived incomes and far too pessimistically."

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More information: … 97613504965.abstract
Journal information: Psychological Science

Citation: Income inequality is rising, but maybe not as fast as you think (2013, December 16) retrieved 23 September 2019 from
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Dec 16, 2013
That being said, Americans heavily underestimate the total amount of wealth controlled by the top 20% and top 1% as shown in this study by a Harvard Business School professor and economist:


Maybe this has to do with the fact that since they aren't saving, they think the wealthy aren't either? Or they expect that they must pay a lot of tax on it which they really don't?

Dec 16, 2013
Not all dollars are the same. Also its possible that the people answering the online survey are using an implicit definition of "household" and "wealth" that's differs from that measured in the US census.

For example, one definition of wealth is financial resilience--the ability to get by with much the same standard of living in spite of uninsurable risks--been laid off, uncovered medical treatment costs, fraud, legal actions. That depends not just upon standard measures of wealth but access to nonfinancial resources (country club and other social networks, alternative employment opportunities, general health, education, social standing). These tend to increase (for those average income) and decrease (for those below average income) nonlinearly with "money" wealth. When people think of wealth they factor in such things causing them to appear to "overestimate" and "underestimate" the value of wealth of those at the extremes of income.

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